Past and future

The civil war in Syria war threatens to do irreparable damage to the country's archaeological treasures.

When Unesco described the Great Mosque of Aleppo as "one of the most beautiful mosques in the Muslim world", few would have begged to differ. The landmark12th-century building was an icon of Islamic architecture. As well as a place of worship, it served as a document of history, a national treasure and a testament to the breathtaking beauty that architecture can inspire.

Until two weeks ago, that is, when it was ravaged by fire. Now, the famous stonewash courtyard is charred by flames. The domed interiors, hung with gold chandeliers, lie in rubble. Enamelled mosaic tiles are scattered on the floor alongside broken windows and empty ammunition cases.

The fate of the Ummayad mosque is becoming a sadly familiar story for the cultural heritage of Syria. Earlier this month, the centuries-old Aleppo souk was destroyed, adding to an ever-increasing list of archaeological devastation.

There are six UNESCO world heritage sites in Syria – sites so important to human history that they have an international mandate to protect them; not one of them has so far escaped the conflict unscathed.

The destruction to historic sites is one of the less-reported on results of the civil war in Syria, and understandably so – next to the devastating human cost, it seems almost callous to worry about the fate of inanimate objects. Yet as Irina Bokova, director general of UNESCO noted, “the historic and highly symbolic value of this heritage … [needs to be preserved] for the whole of humanity.”

It is difficult to overstate Syria’s archaeological significance – the landscape is nothing short of a palimpsest of world history. Throughout the country, the remains and ruins of building chart the rise and fall of centuries over the millennia. From Neolithic fragments to Bronze age friezes, Roman temples, Mesopotamian trade routes, early Christian churches and some of the most magnificent Islamic art ever created, Syria can rightly be regarded as a living museum. But now, these pages of history are now in serious danger of being wiped for ever.

Syria is a signatory to the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, meaning that there is an international incentive to intervene to protect its cultural heritage. Whilst many NGOs and archeological organisations are campaigning for this, the scale of the conflict has largely restricted their actions so far to mere lobbying. UNESCO has released several statements calling for appeals, with the hope of being able to send someone in to assess the damage if the situation permits. Smaller groups are doing their best to publicise their damage as well, and the Syrian-based Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) are actively working on monitoring the situation. Yet, when dealing with a crisis of this magnitude – when the safety and protection of civilians cannot even be secured – people are increasingly asking what hope there can be for architecture?

As Julien Anfruns, the Director General of ICOM (the International Council of Museums) notes, “When we deal with these emergencies, our first action is to evaluate [the damage] …when we are in places in which it is very difficult to intervene because of combats, satellite monitoring is really instrumental.”

Indeed, satellite monitoring of certain cultural sites has been deployed in some areas of Syria already, but the high financial cost and relatively low priority of this means that it offers a far from conclusive picture of the damage.

In response to this, alternate, practical ways to chart the destruction are developing. Syrians, concerned about their heritage, are increasingly using ground-level footage taken on mobile phones and video-cameras to survey the most important sites. One of the most extensive is the Facebook page "Le patrimoine archéologique syrien en danger". Founded by several Syrian and European archaeologists, the group is endeavoring to compile as accurate a picture as possible of damage to historic sites through posted photographs and eye-witness reports. It is proving to be an invaluable resource.

Lawrence Rothfield, former director of the Cultural Policy Center at the University of Chicago, believes that new technologies offer some of the most effective ways to tackle the crisis. “What we need at the moment is real-time or close-to-real-time evidence, which cell phone technology can provide at a much lower cost [than satellites]”.

“If the warring parties know that they can be indicted for war crimes based on imagery showing they were the first to move onto a protected site or that they are enabling and profiting from the looting of sites, they may think twice”.

Damage from shelling and gunfire is only one of the hazards affecting Syria’s cultural heritage. The almost incalculable international value of such scholarly objects means that looting is a huge danger. As Emma Cunliffe, a doctoral student in archaeology at Durham University, who has compiled one of the most definitive reports on the damage in Syria so far, observes: “Looting is going to be a huge problem. There are a lot of videos online of looting at the world heritage, and that’s very worrying because they’re the prominent ones, and I’ve heard circulating reports of damage at smaller sites as well”. Previous experience with looting, notably in post-conflict Iraq suggests that future prospects are bleak. “In Iraq, these looter gangs were getting up to 200 people, and the problem is you can put resources in place at one site – even if you did have the resources to scare off two hundred guys – they would just go to the  next one. And you can’t have two hundred people at every site”.

Like the Ummayad mosque, many of the most important Syrian sites are built in militarily strategic locations (the crusaders had reasons for their geographic specifications), and these are most likely to be appropriated by one or both of the warring parties in the current conflict. Even with international awareness increasing, one things is guaranteed: as long as the conflict continues, damage to cultural sites will continue. Rothfield says: “The future of Syria's past looks very grim.”

A Syrian rebel inside the Umayyad Mosque in Aleppo (Photograph: GettyImages)

Kamila Kocialkowska is a freelance journalist based in London.

@ms_kamila_k

 

KEVIN C MOORE
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Notes from a small island: the fraught and colourful history of Sicily

Sicily: Culture and Conquest at the British Museum.

When a gun was fired a hundred metres or so from the Sicilian piazza where we were eating, my reaction was to freeze, fall to my knees, and then run for cover in a colonnade. As I peered back into the square from behind a column, I expected to see a tangle of overturned chairs and china but I watched instead as the freeze-frame melted into normality. I retrieved my shoe from the waiter.

I should not have been surprised by how coolly everyone else handled what I was inclined to call “the situation”. The Sicilians have had 4,000 years in which to perfect the art of coexistence, defusing conflict with what strikes outsiders as inexplicable ease, rendering Sicily one of the most culturally diverse but identifiable places on the planet. Still, having visited “Sicily: Culture and Conquest” at the British Museum, I feel vindicated. There may be no Cosa Nostra in this exhibition, which charts the island’s history from antiquity to the early 13th century, but that doesn’t mean there is no simmering conflict. Like Lawrence Durrell, who described Sicily as “thrown down almost in mid-channel like a concert grand” and as having “a sort of minatory, defensive air”, I felt the tension beneath the bliss that has characterised Sicily for many centuries.

The “barbarians”, wrote the Greek historian Thucydides, moved to Sicily from Iberia (Spain), Troy and Italy before the Phoenicians and Greeks settled there in the 8th century BC – the time of Homer, whose Odyssey provided a useful guide to some of the more threatening features of the landscape. The giant, sea-lying rocks off the east coast were the boulders that the one-eyed Polyphemus hurled at Odysseus’s ship; the phrase “between Scylla and Charybdis” referred to the Strait of Messina that divides Sicily from the mainland; Lake Pergusa, in the centre of the island, was the eerie spot whence Hades snatched Persephone and carried her down to the underworld.

It is a delight to behold the British Museum’s case full of terracotta figurines of Persephone, Demeter and their priestesses, some of thousands uncovered across Sicily, where the Greeks established the cult of these goddesses. The Phoenicians introduced their
own weather god, Baal Hammon, and the indigenous Sicilians seem to have accepted both, content that they honoured the same thing: the island’s remarkable fecundity.

The early Sicilians were nothing if not grateful for their agriculturally rich landscapes. As early as 2500 BC, they were finding ways to celebrate their vitality, the idea being that if the soil was fertile, so were they. On a stone from this period, intended as a doorway to a tomb, an artist has achieved the near impossible: the most consummate representation of the sexual act. Two spirals, two balls, a passage and something to fill it. The penis is barely worth mentioning. The ovaries are what dominate, swirling and just as huge as the testicles beneath them. We see the woman from both inside and out, poised on two nimble, straddling legs; the man barely figures at all.

Under the Greeks in the 5th century BC, it was a different story. Although many of Sicily’s tyrants were generous patrons of the arts and sciences, theirs was a discernibly more macho culture. The second room of the exhibition is like an ode to their sporting achievements: amid the terracotta busts of ecstatic horses and the vase paintings of wild ponies bolting over mounds (Sicily is exceptionally hilly) are more stately representations of horses drawing chariots. These Greek tyrants – or rather, their charioteers – achieved a remarkable number of victories in the Olympic and Pythian Games. Some of the most splendid and enigmatic poetry from the ancient world was written to celebrate their equestrian triumphs. “Water is best, but gold shines like gleaming fire at night, outstripping the wealth of a great man” – so begins a victory ode for Hiero I of Syracuse.

But what of the tensions? In 415BC, the Athenians responded to rivalries between Segesta and Syracuse by launching the Sic­ilian expedition. It was a disaster. The Athenians who survived were imprisoned and put to work in quarries; many died of disease contracted from the marshland near Syracuse. There is neither the space nor the inclination, in this relatively compact exhibition, to explore the incident in much depth. The clever thing about this show is that it leaves the historical conflicts largely between the lines by focusing on Sicily at its height, first under the Greeks, and then in the 11th century under the Normans – ostensibly “the collage years”, when one culture was interwoven so tightly with another that the seams as good as disappeared. It is up to us to decide how tightly those seams really were sewn.

Much is made of the multiculturalism and religious tolerance of the Normans but even before them we see precedents for fairly seamless relations between many different groups under the 9th-century Arab conquerors. Having shifted Sicily’s capital from Syracuse to Palermo, where it remains to this day, the Arabs lived cheek by jowl with Berbers, Lombards, Jews and Greek-Byzantine Sicilians. Some Christians converted to Islam so that they would be ­exempt from the jizya (a tax imposed on non-Muslims). But the discovery of part of an altar from a 9th-century church, displayed here, suggests that other Christians were able to continue practising their faith. The marble is exquisitely adorned with beady-eyed lions, frolicsome deer and lotus flowers surrounding the tree of life, only this tree is a date palm, introduced to Sicily – together with oranges, spinach and rice – by the Arabs.

Under Roger II, the first Norman king of Sicily, whose father took power from the Arabs, the situation was turned on its head. With the exception of the Palermo mosque (formerly a Byzantine church, and before that a Roman basilica), which had again become a church, mosques remained open, while conversion to Christianity was encouraged. Roger, who was proudly Catholic, looked to Constantinople and Fatimid Egypt, as well as Normandy, for his artistic ideas, adorning his new palace at Palermo and the splendidly named “Room of Roger” with exotic hunting mosaics, Byzantine-style motifs and inscriptions in Arabic script, including a red-and-green porphyry plaque that has travelled to London.

To which one’s immediate reaction is: Roger, what a man. Why aren’t we all doing this? But an appreciation for the arts of the Middle East isn’t the same thing as an understanding of the compatibilities and incompatibilities of religious faith. Nor is necessity the same as desire. Roger’s people – and, in particular, his army – were so religiously and culturally diverse that he had little choice but to make it work. The start of the Norman invasion under his father had incensed a number of Sicily’s Muslims. One poet had even likened Norman Sicily to Adam’s fall. And while Roger impressed many Muslims with his use of Arabic on coins and inscriptions, tensions were brewing outside the court walls between the
island’s various religious quarters. Roger’s death in 1154 marked the beginning of a deterioration in relations that would precipitate under his son and successor, William I, and his grandson William II. Over the following century and a half, Sicily became more or less latinised.

The objects from Norman Sicily that survive – the superb stone carvings and multilingual inscriptions, the robes and richly dressed ceiling designs – tell the story less of an experiment that failed than of beauty that came from necessity. Viewing Sicily against a background of more recent tensions – including Cosa Nostra’s “war” on migrants on an island where net migration remains low – it is perhaps no surprise that the island never lost its “defensive air”. Knowing the fractures out of which Sicily’s defensiveness grew makes this the most interesting thing about it. 

Daisy Dunn’s latest books are Catullus’ Bedspread and The Poems of Catullus (both published by William Collins)

“Sicily” at the British Museum runs until 14 August

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism